A century ago, Henry Ford put America on wheels. Now, United States President Barack Obama wants to put the country on rails - high-speed rails, to be precise - to change the way Americans travel, and live.
Ford's dream of making affordable automobiles for every working American revolutionized the transport system in the US. It fueled America's rise as an industrial superpower and transformed it an auto empire.
But times change. The American dream today is caught in the nightmarish labyrinth of traffic gridlock, air pollution, soaring gas prices and global warming, to name just a few problems. The rapid depletion of fossil fuel resources and the melting of polar ice sheets have made the search for green energy a daunting challenge for world leaders.
In his first State of the Union address, on Jan 27, Obama vowed to make all-out efforts to develop clean energy. The "nation that leads the clean energy economy will lead the global economy, and America must be that nation," he said.
The next day, US Vice-President Joe Biden traveled to Tampa, Florida, to make a milestone announcement: Washington will provide a federal grant of $8 billion to start the country's high-speed rail network project in 31 states, including a 135-km line from Tampa to Orlando, the site of Disneyworld. "There is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we cannot," he said. "Right here in Tampa, we are building the future."
It looks like an auspicious step toward realizing Obama's "Yes, we can" campaign dream. Obama's "Change" and "Yes, we can" caught the fancy of Americans, who were wary of two expensive wars that was sapping the country's power and wealth and costing it many lives. But putting the US on rails is a task easier said than done.
First, Americans have a love affair with cars for historical and geographical reasons. Cars have been part of the American way of life since Ford put them on the Model T. Unlike Japan or Germany, the US is too big a country for trains to provide people the mobility and convenience they need. Traveling by train has never been popular except for a very few Americans, including Joe Biden who loves to commute between Delaware and Washington by Amtrak.
Second, the US has the world's best interstate freeway network, built in the 1950s during Eisenhower's presidency. It was arguably the world's largest public works project. The 75,000-km road network links the country's 48 contiguous states like arteries in the human body, making faraway places nearly as accessible as a next door neighbor.
But this is the era of high-speed trains - in China and in the US. Ford did not know what air pollution, climate change or prohibitive gas price was. Even when I was a student in the US, gas used to cost a quarter a gallon. To fill up a gas-guzzling tank you needed less than $5. Now, it costs at least 15 times more. If you travel by car you consume more energy and generate more greenhouse gases that aggravate climate change.
Obama stated the obvious when he said the "nation that leads in clean energy economy will lead the global economy". High-speed trains use clean energy. China, no doubt, is at the forefront of high-speed rail development and other green energy sectors such as wind and solar power.
Though the $8-billion federal grant for high-speed rails may seem like a drop in a bucket, it is a significant first step. In fact, it is the first installment for a gargantuan undertaking, which if successful, will change the US. "Change", by the way, is the hallmark of the Obama presidency. He has been trying to change the US in many ways - healthcare, Wall Street and dependence on oil.
But to put the US on high-speed rails will need great political will, consensus at the highest political level and a lot of money. China's high-speed rails will cost $300 billion from 2005 to 2020 but it enjoys the support of the government and people.
It is here, for a change, that the US can learn a thing or two from China. First is efficiency. China is a late bloomer. It began its high-speed rail development project less than a decade ago, that is, more than three decades after Japan operated its Bullet Train between Tokyo and Osaka.
But today, China has the highest high-speed rail mileage. It has the fastest train in the world, too - the Guangzhou-Wuhan train that began running from December. The average speed of the train on the 968-km route is 312 kmph. In comparison, France's TGV averages 272 kmph, and Japan's Bullet Train, 185 kmph.
The US can also learn from China's "green leap forward", a term coined by multi-Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman. High-speed rail is a part of that leap. And the fact has not been lost on Obama, and the fact that he has said "China is not playing for second place" proves that.
In his State of the Union address, Obama asserted: "I don't accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders."
This, obviously, belies his angst after seeing that such jobs and industries have already taken root in China. But it's better late than never. Obama's initiative to set in motion America's high-speed rail network marks an important milestone in the development of the country's green economy.
But don't expect bullet trains to whistle through America's expansive plains any time soon. The first line, either from Tampa to Orlando or from Los Angeles to San Francisco, may not be completed before a decade. The problems are multiple and include funding.
California is nearly broke, the federal government is heavily in debt and high-speed rail is by no means cheap. Obama's blueprint could cost taxpayers $500 billion, according to the Cato Institute, a liberal think tank based in Washington. And that would be difficult to come by.
The author is a Chinese-born journalist residing in North America
(China Daily 02/11/2010 page9)